Boat people: glory … or infamy?
“Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves!” As a maritime nation, surrounded by sea, it is hardly surprising that boats and ‘boat people’ of one form or another have figured so prominently throughout British history … for better and for worse. We shall use the term ‘boats’ rather than ‘ships’, as it suits our theme. The term ‘boat people’ has, in recent months and years, acquired pejorative, even criminal, connotations. ‘Boat people’ are threatening to grow into a ‘hurricane of migrants’, according to our Home Secretary. So, let’s explore the theme of ‘boat people’ in history to evaluate the true significance of this expression.
Invading boat people …
‘Boat people’ have often invaded and raided our islands, in some cases colonising and staying here. Think of the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans as ‘boat people’ who came to our islands by sea. Other boats have represented a threat, for example those of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon and Hitler; in each case fought off by the plucky Brits. Britannia rules the waves, after all.
Glorious boat people … but not always
Some boats and their sailors from our history are spoken of with a degree of reverence: ‘boat people’ – navigators, captains and admirals – like Drake, Raleigh, Cook, Nelson and Scott. The names of vessels like Golden Hind, Cutty Sark, Victory, Discovery, Great Britain and Royal Yacht Britannia bring a lump to some people’s throats. Then there were the little boats of Dunkirk … It is ironic that the coastline where the Dunkirk drama unfolded in World War Two, involving a massive rescue mission conducted by hundreds of small boats, is nowadays so often the scene of desperate attempts to reach the UK. Instead of small boats being sent to rescue troops we have Border Force boats sometimes pushing small boats back to the beach. Looking down on the French coastline on a flight back from Italy recently, I was struck by how impossible it must be for the French authorities to police it in the way some UK tabloids seem to expect.
Whilst our ‘boat people’ used to explore and discover other lands, contributing to the creation and spread of the British Empire, those who conquered and plundered the resources and artefacts of those lands are hardly the most glorious contributors to our history. Then there were the boats used in the slave trade: Britannia has often waived the rules of humanity.
Brave boat people: the rescuers
One of the noblest boating activities is the saving of lives at sea: RNLI crews risk their own lives to save “those in peril on the sea”, to quote the words of the naval hymn: “Eternal Father, strong to save”. The RNLI’s vocation is “the preservation of life from shipwreck” as stated in its original full name. This most respected of institutions has itself suffered great losses and notable disasters: Penlee to name but one. Yet recently the RNLI has come under disgraceful attack from the far right – both verbal and physical – in the context of migrant boats: ‘boat people’ being rescued by other ‘boat people’.
The Channel migrant boat people – political scapegoats
Indeed, boats and ‘boat people’ have been in the news a lot lately, whether it be the small inflatable dinghies attempting to cross the English Channel, or the occupants – albeit briefly – of the calamitous Bibby Stockholm. Increasingly, these ‘boat people’ are portrayed as lawbreakers, and as a threat to our way of life. So much so that even migrant children are treated almost like criminals, undeserving of anything which might make them feel welcome. Yet most would agree that, in spite of its bluster, the government’s policy of stopping the boats is failing. This is not a uniquely British problem, regardless of what we are constantly told in the worst elements of our media. A few months ago in June, many of us noticed the stark contrast in the nature and style of reporting accorded to a few ultra-rich people lost in a dodgy submersible while searching for that notable disaster victim – the Titanic, as compared with the disaster in which hundreds of ‘boat people’ were lost in the Mediterranean during the same week. Of course the ‘boat people’ in the English Channel are a legitimate cause for concern, but the numbers here are small compared to the many thousands arriving in Lampedusa – recently over 8,000 in just three days. Yet our ‘boat people’ seem to provide the Government with an important distraction to ensure that tabloid readers don’t think too much about the real causes of the stresses and strains they are experiencing in their daily lives.
The Canary boat people
As I described in an article more than two years ago, there is a similar flow of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and West Africa to the Canary Islands. The arrivals of these ‘boat people’ are regular occurrences; so much so that on the very day I was putting the finishing touches to this article, El Mundo reported first thing in the morning that two cayucos (large canoe-shaped West African fishing boats) carrying 200 migrants had landed in El Hierro, at the extreme southwest of the Canary Islands. By lunchtime El Mundo had updated this to three, carrying 300 migrants, and now just as I inserted that link and checked it, the paper updated its report to four, with a total of almost 500 migrants. El Hierro can’t cope with so many migrants, so several hundred are being taken to Tenerife. In recent years, many thousands of these ‘boat people’ have been lost trying to get to the Canary Islands, often sailing past them into the Atlantic.
Exploited boat people: Windrush and Chinese deportees…
Most people have heard the name Windrush, but not all know that this is the name of one of the boats which brought people from the West Indies to the UK, when our country was in desperate need of workers during the period of recovery after World War Two. In recent years some of those workers have been deprived of their right to remain in the UK; many have been detained, denied legal rights, and even threatened with deportation; in fact, a number of them have been wrongly deported from the UK. But welcoming people from abroad, then chucking them out when they have served their purpose is not the only example of such hypocrisy. In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4 Political Thinking, Paul Nowak, the general secretary of the TUC, described his origins as being part Polish, and part Chinese; one grandfather had been a Chinese cook in the Merchant Navy. At the end of World War Two 20,000 of these Chinese ‘boat people’ were rounded up and deported, no longer needed to feed and clothe the crews of British ships. Even now Stella Maris, a Catholic charity which helps seafarers, will tell you that many of them are among the most exploited, poorly paid and lonely workers in the world, the crews of boats on which we depend for everything we expect for our daily lives. Yet these ‘boat people’ are unseen and unheard.
Vain boat people: Johnson and Mordaunt
And now another publicity stunt based on boats! Perhaps in a bid to line herself up as a candidate to become PM, the other PM – that is Penny Mordaunt – is proposing the construction of not one, but three boats to replace the last Royal Yacht! The Daily Express heads its report in the sort of jingoistic style one would expect: “Penny Mordaunt rules the waves as she unveils three ships to replace the Royal Yacht”. Note one possible role of these boats: “they are tipped to even deal with the immigration crisis”. Johnson made a big thing of his plan to build a new Royal Yacht, but it withered away like so many of his crazy schemes … and his aspirations to be a leader in the mould of Churchill. As we shall see later, some of Churchill’s decisions were disastrous: he was not exactly a good role model to choose.
Obscenely rich boat people …
Superyachts: the ultimate status symbol for so many billionaires and obscenely rich people. I remember seeing one in Dartmouth Harbour many years ago which belonged to one of the founders of Microsoft. Why the need for two helipads, swimming pools, and such opulence … or such blatant ostentation? Significantly, after Russia invaded Ukraine, superyachts were the target for confiscation from Russian oligarchs, products of their ill-gotten gains; but nobody could be certain which one belonged to Vladimir Putin, perhaps the most criminal of these particular ‘boat people’. Talking of ill-gotten gains, there is the Lady M, which should really have been called PPE, given that it was owned by Baroness Michelle Mone. Perhaps we should have had a paragraph called ‘Corrupt boat people.’
U-boat people: the SS Arandora Star
Perhaps one of the most notorious – yet hardly known – British boat stories in living memory is that of the SS Arandora Star: a disaster which should never have happened. The context: the ‘boat people’ in this case were hundreds of Anglo-Italian and Anglo-German civilian internees, among the many thousands rounded up when Churchill declared “Collar the lot”. There were also a smaller number of actual prisoners of war. Some people dispute what Churchill actually said, but its effect was devastating for Italians living in the UK. Many had lived here for decades, working hard and establishing shops and small businesses. When Churchill made his decision, many of these shops and businesses were attacked, and their owners subjected to physical as well as verbal attacks. Here’s an eyewitness account written for this article by a Scottish lady in her 80s:
“Mr Cocozza came to Glasgow from Italy in the mid 1930s. He set up business making ice cream in a small corner shop in Maryhill Road opposite the Blytheswood Cinema. He extended the premises by joining the next-door shop and converting the space into a seating area with wooden tables and very high backed wooden benches, thus giving a secluded feeling popular with young couples or groups of friends.
“Our extended family often came together on a Friday evening and at some point I would be told to go to the Tally for some ice cream. Cocozza made delicious ice cream. Usually I was given a large jug for the ice cream. Maybe that was because it was easier to carry a jug of ice cream than a collection of sliders and pokey hats or maybe that was because you got more ice cream for your money. One night I was given the usual jug but when I got there the place was in a terrible mess – tables and benches smashed and the pieces of wood strewn around. Windows and doors were shattered and Mr Cocozza, with blood running down his face and arms, shouting and shouting: ‘I do not like Mussolini. I leave Italy because I do not like him’, or words to that effect. I was only about 5 or 6 years old. I think a couple of the adults went to find out what had happened and were told that a gang had decided that Cocozza was a supporter of Mussolini.
“A few weeks later he re-opened. He had managed to get some second-hand equipment to make his ice cream but he had no seats or tables and no-one to help him. His wife never put her foot in the door of the shop again she was so traumatised. He struggled on for several years without any help. I was told that after the war ended he and his family went back to Italy. Whether that was true or not I don’t know.”
Another example I know of is a couple interned in different camps, even though they had a nine-year-old son. I also know of a middle-aged Anglo-Italian widow with three school-age children who was told to leave Portsmouth, supposedly being considered a threat – an enemy alien in a naval port? As if …
As for the SS Arandora Star ‘boat people’: Churchill had decided to send hundreds of these Anglo-Italian internees to camps in Canada. The SS Arandora Star was used to deport them, but Churchill refused to identify it as carrying civilians, the convention being to use the International Red Cross to denote this, and therefore that it was not a legitimate target for attack. The Warth Mills Project, in its research into the plight of Italian and other internees, states:
“The ship wasn’t displaying the International Red Cross symbol to signify civilians were on board, and access to lifeboats was obstructed by heavy wire mesh. It was also sailing without an escort. At 7am on 2 July 1940 the SS Arandora Star was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland.”
Thus, hundreds of Anglo-Italians, other prisoners and the soldiers guarding them suffered a terrifying fate. Among the victims were the grandfather and uncle of Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, the Scottish-born sculptor and artist, one of the foremost British sculptors of the 20th century.
What follows is a tribute, written for this article, to one of the ‘boat people’ lost with SS Arandora Star:
“My grandfather was a victim of the sinking of the Arandora Star on 2nd July, 1940. He was one of many Italian internees and German prisoners of war who were being transported to Canada for the duration of the war.
“For many years very little information was in the public domain about this episode in our history, so relatives and friends were left with many unanswered questions. In recent years more has become known about the circumstances of this tragedy, and with the advent of the World Wide Web more information is more easily accessed. The whereabouts of the resting places of some of the deceased are also coming to light, especially around the Irish and West of Scotland coastlines.
“I was born just after the end of the war so I did not know my grandfather, but as I grew up I became more aware of the circumstances surrounding not only his death and the deaths of so many men, both young and old, but also of the heartbreak of so many bereaving families.”
A BBC article from 2010 tells a similar story. There are now memorials in the Italian church in Clerkenwell, in Glasgow and Cardiff and a few other places – including Italian towns which lost victims, but there is little to indicate where bodies from the disaster were washed ashore in south-west Scotland and north-east Ulster. Nor has there ever been an apology for this blot on Churchill’s reputation. Boris Johnson take note.
The other boat people
No nation is entirely glorious, and all have skeletons in their cupboards. However, these dark episodes in history should be recognised in order to ensure that such mistakes and injustices are not repeated. So, we should remember some of these other ‘boat people’ when our government seeks to make scapegoats of migrants. Vilification and demonisation of these ‘boat people’ only reflects badly on those who exploit their plight in this way. All ‘boat people’ are human beings, deserving to be treated with appropriate consideration, dignity and respect.